The floor breathed and sweated depending on the season and our disposition. In summer coolness wrapped the soles, the pores of the skin opened in receptivity as we walked around the house. During monsoon the moisture spread like a wild dream, climbing the walls and molding papers and clothes. The durries and floor mats were aired and sunned, or else they oozed when you placed your feet on them. Moisture was harder to manage, like a well-kept secret it remained trapped under the cement for months after the skies cleared, and surfaced like memories breaking through the membrane of time.
No cement, just bricks and lime plastered with layers of mud, my mother said of her parent’s house which if still standing will be nearly a hundred years old. That cannot be, I knew she was trying to emphasize the will of her father that held the structure up. He bought the house he had rented into, saving up to buy it took nearly a lifetime and by then his three daughters were adults, ready to be married, and his four sons were gawky adolescents.
My father remembers the house as a young son-in-law. Radiant and bursting with people, he told me; down the courtyards voices rang of visitors from every part of Madras, from Madurai and Mayavaram. The kitchen was open round the clock, round the year – coffee brewed with milk from the cow brought to the doorstep, and meal ready by 8.30 a.m. My grandfather who was a lawyer ate as early as that, after which he wore his coat over his cotton shirt and starched veshti, twisted a turban from angavastram, and wore these for a ride in the Pallavan bus to the High court in Mint.
My aunts and uncles dispersed all over India, visited Madras during the summer holidays. My mother married my father a banker from Madras and was available for her aging parents all through the year. Besides her, there were two unmarried uncles, one of them schizophrenic and violent in his behavior; the other could not get himself to face the world, he raged how he had never got his due. He never sat to speak to anyone, and no one knew what he wanted from them or life. My mother was his angel, but angels cannot always help, at best they can be calming and accepting.
Very different from that of my father’s, my enduring memory is of the house falling silent and getting leaner, and of people severely ill and dying. My grandmother died of cancer after a painful battle. After the rest of the family left, my mother and I witnessed my grandfather’s grief, it was like watching a dark movie week after week. Devastated he spent a large part of the day staring at the wall. I kept away from him, walked in the periphery of the house – spent hours on the gooseberry tree, scrambled up the tiled roof, dawdled along the walls. With sorrow collecting like a stone at the pit of my stomach, I went to him one day, stood beside him, and looked at the wall. When it made sense to me at last – his major occupation of the day – the dark wet blanket that clamped me down lifted, flew away like a feather. On the wall was the framed photo of my grandmother. Vel photo studio in Luz Corner had done a clean job of an old photo where my grandfather sat on a chair and she stood beside him. She was alone in this photo, on the far left an ornate table one sees in old Tamil movies had been added with a vase of flowers. I was learning to paint and my grip over perspective was weak, but in a minute I knew there was something wrong with that vase whose open mouth I could see from where I stood eight feet away and five feet below the picture. My mind was engaged in questioning the purpose for this addition in the photo: my grandmother instead of assuming the gravity of the dead, looked like an actress in a musty studio.
When my uncle in a rage emptied a bucked of cold water on my grandfather’s head, this behavior milder when compared to what followed in the next few days, my mother arranged for an ambulance from Kilpauk hospital and coaxed her brother to open the door of the room where he had locked himself. She stood outside the ward as he was administered electric shock and after a couple of hours brought him home as if after tooth extraction. My mother had this capacity to make everything appear normal even when it wasn’t.
At about the same time, the house began hollowing out, it shed plaster – chunks of them. They were getting old – both her father and her house. Cracks bisected diagonally a wall in the storeroom; timber room, part of the study upstairs, wooden steps leading to the terrace were advised not to be used, and they became nesting places for scorpions. Saferoom remained safe with its iron vault which was for the most part empty but for my grandfather’s silver plate. The vault was weighed in rupees and sold as scrap when the house fell after my grandfather died. The money that came from selling the land and the strong wooden doors were shared between my mother and her siblings. My uncle’s share was put away in a bank and used for his medicines and stay as a life-long resident in a home. My mother used her share to re-lay the floor in our house, the cement floor was replaced with mosaic tiles. Houses are not meant to speak and care must be taken to keep them mute.